UK's Improvement on Display in Vandy Win

Thursday’s win at Arkansas was one of Kentucky’s best performances of the season.

The Wildcats withstood a tough road environment and executed their game plan to near perfection, seemingly turning a corner on the heels of a loss at Auburn.

John Calipari still had no idea what to expect from his team in its next outing.

“I don’t know where we are right now as a team,” Coach Cal said on Friday.

After Saturday, it seems clear UK is in a better place than it’s been all season.

No. 23/19 Kentucky (15-4, 5-2 Southeastern Conference) backed up its big game against the Razorbacks with an arguably even better effort in dispatching a Vanderbilt team Calipari said was among the best in the SEC. The Cats won, 76-57, in front of a crowd of 22,975 that packed Rupp Arena in spite of a blizzard that has crippled much of the eastern United States.

“That’s the best that anyone has played against us,” said Kevin Stallings, whose team has faced the likes of Kansas, Baylor and Purdue. “They were impressive today. I thought they were impressive the other night at Arkansas. I thought they were really good there, too. That’s the best that I feel like anyone has played against us. Both ends were tough, hard, fast, aggressive, and confident.”

The Cats have played very well at times this season, but never have they had so balanced an effort. Not only did UK’s dynamic backcourt do its usual damage – Tyler Ulis had 21 points, Jamal Murray 18 – but Alex Poythress provided a potent inside presence. The senior scored 16 points in spite of being outsized by Vandy’s 7-foot starting duo of Luke Kornet and Damian Jones.

“Just trying to use quickness, trying to play to strengths,” Poythress said. “Just because they’re big you can’t be intimidated by anybody. We weren’t intimidated at all. We were aggressive from the start, both our bigs and our guards. Just trying to come out and be aggressive from the jump.”

Aggressiveness has been an issue for players not named Ulis throughout the season, but Calipari isn’t giving his teammates the option anymore. If they put added pressure on their point guard by passing up shots, they’re out.

“I feel like everybody’s accepting the challenge,” Ulis said. “I’m not the only one who’s going to take late shot-clock shots. Isaiah (Briscoe), he’s taking some, Jamal has made some big shots and I feel like guys are stepping up into their role now. Alex stepping up very big for us, Derek (Willis) playing so well and everybody’s doing their job.”

Willis, as Ulis mentioned, has been a revelation this week.

Two-and-a-half seasons into his UK career, the junior forward had never made a major impact. But starting with that loss at Auburn, he’s blossomed. Willis had 24 points and four made 3s in two games prior to Saturday, but shot wasn’t falling in his second straight start. 

He played 30 minutes anyway.

“Derek Willis, I told him, Derek, you can miss shots when you rebound and block shots and defend,” Calipari said of Willis, who still managed seven points. “You don't have to make every shot.”

Willis was all over the floor against Vandy (11-8, 3-4 SEC), grabbing nine rebounds and tirelessly running the floor. Most importantly, Willis was a key cog in a UK defense that limited the Commodores to 32-percent shooting and five made 3s in 15 attempts.

As impressive as UK’s offense was against Vandy in racking up 1.17 points per possession, the defense was even more encouraging. In fact, it reminded Ulis and Poythress of UK’s team from a year ago.

“We just went out there and fought,” Ulis said. “Me and Alex were just talking about last year, I mean in the locker room, that it felt a little like last year on the defensive end.”

From a blowing a double-digit lead against a then-below .500 team to invoking comparisons to a team that started the season 38-0, UK has come a long way in a week. 

“Anybody that thinks this team is not getting better, you're not watching,” Calipari said. “(Dick Vitale) came in and talked to me, said you know this is one of your teams that's not getting better. I said, so you're not watching college basketball that much.

“This team is getting better. Derek Willis is better. Tyler better. Jamal's better. Isaiah's better. They're all better. Skal (Labissiere) is better. Alex is better. Marcus Lee's got to get back to where he was, but he's now starting to get better.”

Growth: That’s all UK can ask for.

“You don’t want a team that reached its peak in November because then they don’t get any better,” Poythress said. “You want to see steady improvement each and every day, each and every month until they peak around March or late February, something like that right before tournament time where we’re playing our best basketball and then we’re trying to make a little run to win championships.”